In Conversation

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Allan Rohan Crite, School’s Out, 1936, oil, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from The Museum of Modern Art

I write a lot here about how having a world-class art museum in the neighborhood is a great luxury.  That luxury, of course, has little to no value, if you never take advantage.  

I remember when I first moved to Salem and stumbled into the Peabody Essex Museum on my tour of neighborhood museums. I think it was just after I went to the museum for witches and before the museum for pirates.  I thought it was nice, in that way that I had nothing particularly bad to say about it but nothing particularly good either.  It left little impression.

I didn’t understand its heritage or mission.  I didn’t know anything about the exhibits or the collection or the collectors.  It was irrelevant.

Since that first visit now many years ago, the Museum has begun to play a more prominent and engaging role in my life, paralleling its growing prominence in the art world and increasing efforts to live more fully into its mission for cross-cultural engagement.

Case in point: last week’s opening of the new exhibit “In Conversation: Modern African American Art.”

Couches moved into the atrium created conversational clusters for major donors and local bloggers (like myself) to mingle.

The exhibit organized around thematic conversations – identity, community, revolution – encouraged us to ask questions and make connections we might not have otherwise had the show been presented in a more conventional chronological or biographical manner.  (Though it did concern me that I learned about the conversation conceit through a press release and not labels in the gallery.) 

Twitter served as a platform to gather, broadcast, and inspire remarks.  My favorite (in paraphrase): “looking at white people, looking at black people, looking at ourselves.”

Indeed, the truly interesting conversation was not necessarily the one taking place amongst the artists on display, their work, and the thoughtful quotes on the walls that contextualize the period but the one taking place in real time amongst the institution, the genre, and their audiences.

I made it a point to speak to the two African Americans in the galleries when I passed through.  They were proud and inspired.  Could not recall in living memory PEM featuring African American Art.

In her opening essay, chief curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan (who played a significant role in assembling this collection for the Smithsonian American Art Museum) notes that while people of African descent have been making art in this country since its earliest days, African American art – as a thing in itself – has been most vital (and I would argue collected) in the twentieth century amidst the dramatic changes African Americans have experienced and created for themselves in the face of considerable push back.

There were many conversations this night: in the galleries about social change, in the atrium about art.  Even after the bar shut down and the lights dimmed, the conversation continued to the dining room table where we talked about Salem, its French pasta maker, and bright possibilities.

It was nice. 

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